This is the second instalment in a new series called, ‘Preaching on’, in which I go through what it’s like to preach through a particular book of the Bible. The aim is both to help preaching teams with the book in question, but also to model the principles that are relevant to planning any expository preaching series. This time we’re looking at Exodus.
Exodus is very much a book of two halves. In the first half (Ex 1–18), the LORD frees the Israelites from Egypt. In the second half (Ex 19–40), the LORD tells the Israelites what kind of people they’re to be now he’s freed them. Here’s a suggested break-up and some comments.
The Exodus Narrative
The first half of Exodus is basically a straight narrative, and very exciting. This is the half they make all the movies about! I would preach this in sequence, choosing a representative section for each Bible reading:
- The Introduction (chapters 1–2): picking up where Genesis left off (the Israelites hiding in Egypt from a famine), it spells out the Israelites’ plight. As they grow in number, Pharaoh fears their power and so tries to wipe them out. But God hears the Israelites’ cries and determines to save them.
- The Reluctant Leader (3:1–4:17): The LORD introduces himself to Moses and tells him his plan to free the Israelites from Egypt, but Moses is reluctant to lead this mission. Eventually, he agrees.
- The Reluctant Nation (4:18–7:7): Moses tells the Israelites God’s plan, and initially they’re keen. But when Pharaoh clamps down on them they lose their courage. So Moses and Aaron have to go to Pharaoh without their people’s support to demand their release.
- The Plagues (7:8–10:29): to force Pharaoh’s hand, the LORD sends nine plagues, but Pharaoh still doesn’t free the Israelites.
- The Passover (11–12): the LORD finally sends a plague that does force Pharaoh’s hand—the killing of every Egyptian firstborn son. The Israelites flee into the desert.
- The Red Sea (13:1–15:21): having released the Israelites, Pharaoh now changes his mind and chases them, pinning them against the Red Sea. The LORD parts the Red Sea and leads the Israelites through it; but then brings it down on the Egyptians, destroying them.
- Whining and Dining (15:22–18:27): the Israelites are finally free (after 430 years of slavery). But what do they do? Within three days, they start whining about the food. But amazingly, God still provides for them, and brings them to meet with him at Mount Sinai.
There are lots of great themes you can pick up in this half of Exodus. The overriding theme, and the driving force behind its narrative, is God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3. This is what makes God ‘remember’ the Israelites in their slavery and determine to free them: so he can keep this promise and make them into a great nation. God’s mission is unstoppable, which is a comforting truth.
The human characters are also highly relatable. They are reluctant, fickle, stubborn, and ungrateful. At times they are fantastically brave. As such, it’s a very psychological book and so there’s lots to dig into here in moral application to God’s people today.
As a fundamentally theological narrative, it also reveals some key things about God. For example, it raises issues about predestination (God ‘hardening’ Pharaoh’s heart, even as he hardens it himself); in the Passover it also introduces substitutionary sacrifice, which is a key biblical motif.
The second half of Exodus is very different from the first. Having saved the Israelites, the LORD now tells them how to live. He gathers them around himself at Mount Sinai and gives them a series of instructions. These instructions make up most of the rest of the book.
I would preach this half of Exodus very differently to the first— especially given there is significant repetition at points (for example, 25:1–31:11 is God giving Moses instructions for building the tabernacle; which Moses passes on in 35:4–40:33). Rather than preach it sequentially, I would preach it thematically.
The guiding theme of the second half of Exodus is that, now God has saved them, the Israelites are to be ‘a holy nation’—19:4–6 are the topic verses for the rest of the book. The latter half of Exodus fleshes out what it means for Israel to be holy.
- The Giving of the Ten Commandments (chapters 19–20).
- Rules About How to Treat Other People (21:1-23:9): these rules are also concerned with how this makes Israel look different to other people (‘holy’ includes the concept of being distinct).
- Holy Time: (23:10–19; 31:12–18; 35:1–3): rules about how to treat time—in particular, when to rest.
- The Holy God (23:20–24:18): this narrative section describes the confirmation of the LORD’s covenant with Israel and stresses the importance of worshipping him alone.
- Holy Place (25:1–31:11; 35:4–40:38): instructions for building the tabernacle, where the LORD will live with his people.
- Israel’s Fall, Punishment and Restoration (chapters 32–34).
A key thing to stress, with this section’s emphasis on obedience, is that grace comes first, then obedience. That is, God saves his people (chapters 1–18) and only then gives them rules (19–20). This is modelled in miniature in the Ten Commandments: the LORD saved the Israelites out of Egypt (20:2), therefore they are to obey him (20:3–7). Furthermore, the failure of the Israelites reinforces our great need for a mediator between us and God—a need fully and finally satisfied in Jesus Christ our Great High Priest. It is not salvation by works but by grace through faith, just like in the New Testament. Since you’ll be taking people through six weeks of rules, this is important to stress from the start, and to keep stressing.
Once that’s done, you can then do lots of rich application on what it looks like to treat people well, rest well, avoid idolatry, and worship God—all understood through the lens of the new covenant.
A Note on Israel and Gaza
One final note: in light of the current war in Israel and Gaza, it is important to preach certain parts of Exodus with care. In particular, those parts in which the Israelites are promised the land (for e.g. Ex 6:8) must be put in the context of the whole Bible. God did promise the Israelites the land in the Old Testament. However, that land was a picture of the ultimate home of God’s people—which now includes both Jews and Gentiles—the new creation (for e.g. Heb 11:14–16). As such, to conflate Old Testament Israel, or the land of Canaan, with the modern nation state of Israel is a mistake. Likewise, to imply that the modern nation state of Israel has a specifically biblical mandate to occupy the land is a mistake. It may have other reasons to be so entitled. But God’s promise to national Israel in the Old Testament is not one of them.
Of course, this is a matter of dispute amongst Christians, so care must also be taken in how much time you spend talking about this. But in my view, a few carefully chosen sentences before moving on would be wise at the moment.
 In fact in Deuteronomy 30:11–14 Moses stresses that the giving of the law itself was an act of grace, something with Paul picks up on in Romans 10:5–9.
 The relationship between the law and gospel is actually more complicated than this. For example, Israel’s ‘election’ as a nation and ‘salvation’ from Egypt is not the same as their election to eternal life. Or again, both the Old and New Testaments draw a series of contrasts between the old and new covenants, including the old covenant’s emphasis on obedience.